Who can benefit from taking a break from training?
The #girlboss ultramarathoner prepping for a race
The #crossfitmom looking to improve performance
The #bootcamp buff who loves getting sweaty
The #bodybuilder looking for a pump
No matter what your favorite form of fitness is, any physically active person can benefit from a rest period from training. Taking a break from training, shouldn't only be when you are forced to because of injury or illness. Scheduled breaks, or deloads, are an important part of a training program. The time off allows your body a chance to do a full reset and recovery, if done correctly.
Why do you need to Deload?
The most basic reason for a deload week is #science. A reduction in the stress you place on your muscles is based on the concept of supercompensation. When you train, you apply stress to your muscles by forcing them to work harder than they’re accustomed to. This creates muscle fatigue and neurological or brain fatigue. During the rest or recovery phase between workouts, your muscles recover. The idea behind the deload is to give your muscles a longer break where you still train but with less intensity. In response, your muscles enter a phase called supercompensation where they bounce back to a higher level of performance.
Gains don't only happen when you are training, in fact that is actually when you are making small damages to your muscles so that during a recovery period after they heal those microtears, then the muscles are stronger to withstand the stress placed upon it the next time. If you want your muscles to grow bigger and stronger, you must give them time to heal.
Some questions to ask yourself about overtraining and underrecovering can be found in this post.
Do your joints feel fine, or are you starting to experience minor aches and pains?
Are your energy levels still going strong, or do you find yourself feeling run down and fatigued throughout the day? Or even susceptible to more illnesses?
Do you have a lack of motivation to train?
Is your progress in the gym beginning to level off or decline?
Have you lost your appetite and or libido?
Scaling back your fitness routine regularly can keep your entire body strong; muscles, bones and ligaments. The reason frequent colds and feelings of fatigue are a sign that you need a deload is: prolonged or intense training without enough rest elevates the stress hormone cortisol which suppresses your immune system. Elevated cortisol can also cause sleep problems and mood changes. Plus, it can lead to bone loss and problems with blood sugar control.
Any type of training leads to higher levels of stress and inflammation in your body. This compounded with the stress of daily life and dieting may lead to bone loss in females, according to one study published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, where scientists analyzed blood samples from 15 elite female rowers during their most intense training weeks leading up to the Olympic season and compared those blood samples to ones taken during a deload week. The potential for bone loss was higher during the intense training periods.
You don't have to be an Olympic level athlete to benefit from a deload week though.
Deloading has multiple benefits:
Allows your body the chance to recover
Avoids training plateaus
Prevents the monotony that accompanies structured programs
Opportunity to do something enjoyable with your free time
How to deload smarter.
You work too hard at the gym not to reap the benefits of the time you are putting in. In the Beyond Mom program, I strategically place an entire deload week after the fourth and heaviest weeks of training each phase. This allows the athletes to go hard knowing that the following week they can recover and take a much-needed break. Many women with "athlete brain" a term coined by Brianna Battles, have a really hard time listening to their body to determine if they need to deload. This is why having it already written into the program is beneficial --- it takes out the guesswork.
1. Deloading is all about recovering, and an easy way to add recovery is by getting more quality sleep. If you usually get up early to train, this is an easy one, you can just sleep in. Otherwise, make it a point to put away screens earlier, get into bed at a decent hour, and catch some zzzzzz.
2. Stretch, foam roll, get a deep tissue massage. Another way to be intentional about recovery is to schedule soft tissue work during the time you would normally be at the gym. Especially if it is mentally hard to take the break, making appointments to get wellness checkups, massages, seeing your counselor, can go along ways to whole-body health.
3. Perform a couple of sessions of Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS) cardio. This is another good option for the gym rat that mentally has a hard time staying away from their people. Hop on the elliptical or walk on the treadmill for a little while, paying attention to your heart rate, making sure to keep it in recovery mode. I still wouldn't do this every day, maybe just three times in a one week period.
4. Limit your caffeine. If you are going to take the time away from the gym to reduce the stress on your body, eliminating the cortisol spiking caffeinated beverages will also help re-regulate your nervous system. You shouldn't need the added coffee if you are focusing on more sleep and you don't need the pre-workout as well this week.
5. Take a break from dieting. If you have been on a strict diet for a while, it may also benefit your body to take some time off from tracking and measuring, and definitely don't jump on the scale. Even if you eat the same foods this week, just breaking the chains of tracking can be a relief. Perhaps even go out to eat and allow yourself to make sensible choices that you feel good about. This is also a good time to reconnect with your body's hunger and fullness cues, which can get all wacky with chronic restriction.
How often you take a deload week depends on how hard you train, your biological and training age, and how much daily stress you already encounter. If you often train using heavy resistance to build strength, you might take a deload week every 4-6 weeks. Watch for the signs mentioned above that suggest your body could use rest. You need progressive overload to keep getting stronger and increasing muscle size, but it must be balanced with rest. If your strength training program is balanced, you shouldn’t feel exhausted or lack motivation often. If you do, you may need to modify your training routine to be less exhausting.
The last part of the deload week is mental. Deload teaches you to respect the process and not challenge the body more than you know you should. As I mentioned before, a lot of us struggle with athlete brain and taking time away from training takes a lot of discipline and a growth mindset. But guess what? After being antsy inside and outside of the gym for a whole week, it’s time to get back at it. Deloading is always a self-motivator, you might find yourself hitting more personal bests!